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Transport in the old days
China has traditionally been a nation of pedestrians, bicycle riders and train and bus takers. In the Mao era there was few traffic problems because there were few motorized vehicles. But recently and in a very short period of time China has advanced from the bicycle stage to the car stage. Roads once filled with bicycles are now filled with cars. Some large highway interchanges have been celebrated on stamps.

Many goods are still moved by carts and wagons or pulled by tractors or bicycles. Up until recently most goods in China were transported around the cities of flat bed pedicabs — bicycle versions of a pick-up truck. Horse drawn carts still ply the streets in cities and towns. Three-wheeled tractors with carts are a common form of transportation in rural China.

It was estimated that there were 100,000 rickshaws on the streets of Shanghai in the 1920s. The Communists outlawed rickshaws because they considered them degrading to those who drove them one, even though many rickshaw drivers thought it was perfectly reasonable way to make a living.

Rickshaw drivers still eking out a living in Beijing often make most of their money by moving stuff for people who are too poor to hire a moving truck. One driver from Anhui Province who had no home in Beijing and either slept in his rickshaw or o a bench at the Forbidden City told the New York Times, “The only happy thing is to have money. You don’t have bitterness. You don’t have to feel tired.”

Some of the motorized vehicles seen on the streets of Beijing look like home-made versions of Thailand’s tuk tuks with an aluminum box to protect users from the weather.

In 2000, China boasted about 7,450 miles of expressways. A decade later, it has 40,400 miles, not much smaller than the American system, which it plans to leapfrog by 2020.

Subways, Urban Transportation and Mass Transit in China

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Chinese city streets are dominated by a chaotic mix of cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians, bicycles, motorscooters, buses and other various kinds of motorized and non-motorized small vehicles. The number of cars and trucks is increasing everyday and some cities are already choking in exhaust fumes and traffic jams.

Beijing’s subway is predicted to be the largest in the world by 2015. Around 16 million Shanghaiese use the city's public transportation system everyday to get to work. Sometimes people wait in long lines to get on overcrowded public buses. An additional six or seven million people ride their bicycles everyday.

A total of 36 cities in China either have or are constructing rail-based public transport systems. As of 2010, there were about 60 subway projects in more than 20 cities. China can build these kinds of transportation systems easier than the United States because the government owns the land, labor is cheap and protests against the system can not be organized. The Canadian company Bombardier produces subway and light rail cars in China.

Subways are being built in lesser known cities and even second- and third-tier ones. As of 2010, more than 30 cities had started building or submitted proposals for new metros. Shenyang hopes to open its first 50-kilometer subway line in October 2010 and have 11 more lines — creating a system longer than 400 kilometers, longer than New York City’s — ready in the coming years. The cost of the first line is around $2.9 billion. The cost for the entire system is expect to be around $24 billion.

China is in a race to build mass transit systems before its cities are engulfed by cars. As of 2009 at least 15 cities were building subway lines and dozens more were planned. Foremost among the ongoing projects is the one in Guangzhou where 60 massive tunnel machines and workers — working in 12-hour, five-day- a-week shifts — work around the clock, often in very hot conditions, to build one of the world’s largest and most advanced subway systems.

Efforts to build a Guangzhou subway system began in 1965 but workers gave up after 10 feet after striking granite. Attempts in 1970, 1971, 1974 and 1979 also ended in failure. Planning for the system under construction now began un 1989. Construction costs are around $100 million a mile, including land acquisition charges, compared to $2.4 billion a mile for new lines in New York.

It is not clear who will win the battle between cars and mass transportation but Chinese cities lack expensive parking and tolls on bridges and tunnels like those in New York City that discourage driving. While new subway lines are being built new suburban development are opening up that are nowhere near subway or train stations. People that can afford cars prefer the convenience of a 10 minute car commute over a 40 minute train ride.

Rapid Growth of the Beijing Subway

“Urban rail-based transit is developing extremely quickly,” Beijing’s vice mayor Huang Wei told the Nandu Weekly, “we have accomplished in ten years what took developed countries over a hundred years to achieve.” [Source: Jared Hall, China Beat, July 12, 2011, Hall lives in Beijing and teaches Chinese and World History at the International Division of Peking University’s Affiliated High School. His blog is called Beijing Time Machine]

Jared Hall wrote in China Beat, “Indeed, since 2001, Beijing’s two-line 54 kilometer (33 mile) subway system has experienced staggering growth. Today, 14 lines are in operation, stretching 336 kilometers (209 miles). By the end of 2015, the city plans to open five more lines and extend another 40 percent in length, making Beijing’s, at least by some measures, the world’s largest subway system.”

“The cost of laying new underground track is staggering. Initial construction alone costs an estimated 500 million yuan per kilometer (or 48 million U.S. dollars per mile). By this measure it takes just 20 kilometers of newly laid track to exceed the city’s entire 2010 transportation budget of 8.92 billion yuan. None of this even takes into consideration operating costs or constraints on revenue, most notably the local government’s 2 yuan (0.31 dollar) cap on ticket prices.

Beijing airport train

Not all have been as impressed with what the Nandu Weekly slyly satirized as China’s subterranean “Great Leap Forward.” Safety concerns have escalated alongside the pace of construction. Since 2003, Beijing Subway has admitted three separate incidents of stations collapsing during construction, each resulting in worker fatalities. Public uneasiness has been further heightened by tragedies elsewhere, including the massive sinkhole that appeared above a subway line in Hangzhou that claimed dozens of lives in 2008. Concerns have also been raised over incidents of poor planning that have compounded minor problems and created major disruptions for Beijing residents. In one case earlier this year, occupants of a building adjacent to the Daxing extension of Line Four protested when trains passing on the elevated line rattled their homes. A subsequent investigation revealed the tracks had been laid too close to existing buildings, and that basic sound and vibration management technology had been scrapped to cut costs.

To fund its ambitious expansion program, Beijing Subway has had to look beyond ticket sales. State-owned banks have been part of the solution. Generous loan terms have provided the capital necessary to construct much of the new infrastructure. Even so, mounting debts have only worked to underscore the need for fresh sources of revenue. This has pushed the subway corporation into related sectors like vehicle manufacturing and advertising. If such moves appear harmless enough, others have exposed real contradictions with its public interest mandate.

Resistance to the Beijing Subway

The Daxing extension... was implemented without any community participation in the planning process, Jared Hall wrote in China Beat, “When inquiries from those affected were directed to the company, they were simply ignored. Of course, this high-handed approach to planning extends well beyond mass transit authorities. It is endemic among transportation-related initiatives ranging from road-widening to car registration, and reflects an attitude that permeates a much wider swath of the public and quasi-public sectors in China. At the same time, it is still striking to see how blatantly the corporation disregards voices from the precise population it pledges to serve. [Source: Jared Hall, China Beat, July 12, 2011]

Although residents only discovered engineering deficiencies after the line had begun operation, they swiftly developed a coordinated strategy to redress their grievances. Their tactics included a combination of petitions and visits to government offices, public demonstrations, as well as lawsuits directed against the subway corporation. This particular repertoire of actions aligns exactly with those described by You-tien Hsing in her discussion of urban households resisting demolition more broadly. Even while operating within the political constraints of the capital, residents’ ability to first draw press coverage and then to extract a commitment from the subway corporation to rectify the problem should warn against dismissing localized resistance to expansion as futile.

An elderly couple camped outside as most of the city took shelter from the winter chill. They were doused in gasoline, flanked by a box of matches and a coffin. A small crowd looked on solemnly as the pair read posters recounting their story. These were Wang Shibo’s grandparents, whose store on the southern end of the popular Nanluoguxiang shopping street had been slated for demolition to make way for a new station along Beijing Subway’s newly-extended Line Eight.

Wang Shibo and her family insisted they were driven to this bold, possibly risky, act of public protest because their entire family teetered on the brink of financial ruin. According to Wang, the family invested practically everything they had to renovate the small clothing shop. But when the subway corporation abruptly presented a notice of eviction, they were reportedly offered just two percent of their investment back in compensation. The very public confrontation with the subway corporation that followed attracted the interest of the international press and a delegation from the National People’s Congress. The shop was torn down two weeks later, but not before an agreement was quietly reached with the family.

Nevertheless, some have persisted in dismissing resistance to subway expansion as narrow-minded. This is partly because conflicts appear to emerge in the form of individuals or small groups defending what might be characterized as “private interests” staking claims against the subway corporation, an entity charged with promoting the “public interest.” This contrast is sharply apparent in press accounts and online chatter deriding holdouts against demolition as “nail households” or “tigers blocking the road to progress?. The subway corporation itself defends cost-cutting measures and meager compensation rates by citing the immense cost associated with such an infrastructure.[Source: Jared Hall, China Beat, July 12, 2011]

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Three wheeler in_Pingyao

Real Estate Developments, Land Seizures and the Beijing Subway

Jared Hall wrote in China Beat, “The subway corporation, making use of its mandated public authority, has seized scarce urban plots and large tracts of suburban land. Those with previous land-use rights are compensated—“often at below-market rates” — and the land is sold later to developers at a considerable profit. The scale of this practice is difficult to measure, but its results are evidenced by sleek luxury condos and high-end shopping plazas erected on land formerly cleared for subway construction.

Beijing Subway is hardly alone in this game of property speculation. Last December, Shanghai Metro was called out for seizing over 35,000 square meters (8.6 acres) of land to construct a 603 square meter (0.1 acre) station in Jing’an District. Not long after, an office complex was erected on the site zoned as “municipal utility.” Wang Chengli, a professor researching urban transportation at Central South University in Changsha, chided metro operators across the country for “being led by the nose by developers.” He pointed to local officials as complicit in the practice, with some even going so far as to “operate ministries for profit.”

Despite being intentionally kept in the dark, those with pre-existing land-use rights have hardly been blind to the yawning gap between the compensation offered and prices quoted for newly built housing units. After all, it is this very price disparity that prevents retirees or other low-income residents of the Old City (the central area bounded by the Second Ring Road) from finding new housing remotely close to their original neighborhoods in the city center. Facing the break-up of communities and two-hour commutes to jobs or senior health check ups, resistance against evictions has been understandably robust.

Chinese Superbuses

To relieve traffic Beijing is experimenting with so-called “superbuses” — vehicles which can hold up to 1,400 people and travel on rails, straddling two lanes of traffic, allowing passenger vehicles to drive underneath them. Tracks for the buses was laid at the end of 2010, with the first testing with passengers taking place in 2011. Three Chinese automakers have been commissioned to produce the buses which will run in both electricity and solar power, The eventual plan calls for 180 kilometers of track to be laid with the buses reducing congestion by 30 percent in some places.

There are some obstacles to overcome for the super-bus schemes to be realized. Elevated bus stops and special traffic signals will have to be built. Only small and mid size vehicles can pass below the buses; other vehicles will be banned on roads using the buses.

Motorcycles in China

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Motorcycles and motorscooters are still the most practical and affordable vehicle for most people. China produced 11 million motorcycles and motorscooters in 2000, most of them for domestic use.

A popular vehicle among expats in Beijing is the Chang Jiang 750, often, called a CJ, with a side car. The vehicle is a late 1950s Chinese variation of a 1940s Russian Ural motorcycle which itself is a copy of the BMW R71, which debuted in 1938. A website described it as “Designed for Hitler, remodeled by Stalin and finally manufactured for Mao.”

Authorities are trying to curtail the use of motorcycles as way of reducing accidents, pollution and traffic. About 170 Chinese cites restrict motorcycles and some, including Shanghai, ban them. Guangzhou has banned motorized bicycles from the city center in an effort to reduce congestion.

Shipping in China

In May 2007, sixteen crew members from Myanmar, South Korea and Indonesia drowned after a 3,800-ton South Korean cargo ship sank after colliding with a 4,800-ton Chinese freighter in heavy fog in waters off northeast China. Two life rafts were found but no one was on board. No one on the Chinese ship was hurt.

China is offering tax breaks and other incentives to foreign-flagged Chinese ships to register in China to simplify rescue and maritime procedures. The move was taken in part because of the collision above. The Chinese freighter operated under the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It was accused of slowing rescue efforts by fleeing the scene. Chinese authorities had to work through authorities with St. Vincent and the Grenadines to track the vessel down.

In November 2007, a cargo ship with an all-Chinese crew sideswiped the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge, releasing about 200,000 liters of oil into San Francisco Bay. It was the worst oil spill in the bay in nearly two decades. A preliminary report indicated that human error rather than mechanical failure was behind the accident. The same month 11 fishermen died after their boat collided with a cargo ship off the coast of Zhejiang Province in China.

Shipping, See Trade, Economics; Pirates, See Crime, Shipbuilding, See Industry

Junks, Sampans and Rafts

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Yangtze river boat

The junk is a kind of Chinese ship first used in the 4th century B.C. The hull has traditionally been paneled with teak and the sails have traditionally been made of cloth or reed mats stiffened by bamboo battens. A junk has no keel. Instead it has a deep and sturdy rudder that turns the vessel and helps keep it stable in strong winds. A junk employs as many as five masts that support square lugsails that can spread and close like Venetian blinds.

A typical ocean-going junk in Marco Polo's time was a 100 feet long and had four masts, oars that required four men to pull and a dozen or so sails made of bamboo slats that rattled in the wind. Teak was prized in shipbuilding because it was strong and resistant to sea worms. It was harvested in forest in India and Southeast Asia.

Some of the largest ships in historical times were junks. See Zheng Ho, History

Sampans are traditional Chinese houseboats. They are associated mostly with southern China and have traditionally been used by fishermen who lived with their families and worked from their boats.

The technique for leak-proof partitions of Chinese junks has been proposed for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status.

People in the western provinces of Ningxia, Qinghai and Gansu still use inflatable animal skin rafts as ferries to cross the Yellow River and other rivers. Traditionally made by Muslim Hui craftsmen, the rafts are made from the skins of sheep, goats and sometimes cattle, which have been soaked in oil and brine for several days before they are inflated.

A medium-size raft is composed of a dozen or so skins tied together under a wooden frame. A raft of this size is strong enough to transport four or five people and their bicycles. Single skin rafts which can accommodate one or two people are used for short ferry rides (the skin reportedly only holds air for about 15 minutes with passengers on board). Forty-by-twenty-five foot rafts made of 600 sheepskins were used in the 1950s on the 1,600-mile, two-week journey on the Yellow River between Lanzhou and Baotou. Few of animal-skin rafts are used anymore. They and their Muslim builders have largely been displaced by bridges.

Ferry and Boat Accidents in China

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Yellow River animal skin raft

In November 1999, a ferry with 312 people on board caught fire and capsized during a storm in icy waters about 1.5 miles off the eastern port of Yantai in Shandong province. A total of 276 people died. Many people froze to death in their lifeboats. A distress signal was sent out at 4:30pm but no help arrived until the following morning.

A few people made it to shore in lifeboats or by swimming. One survivor told AFP, "All the passengers rushed up into the upper deck around 4:00pm when we saw a lot of smoke coming from the lower decks. The winds were so strong I cannot describe it...I decided to jump into the water because the smoke was so strong it was hard to breath." He swam to the shore.

Boat collisions are common on the Yangtze River. In May 2003, a collision between a ferry and a freighter occurred in heavy fog near Peilinglun, 270 miles from Yichang, left 90 people dead or missing. Both vessels had violated regulations that prohibit them from leaving port in heavy fog.

In April 2007, 20 crew members were missing after a 17,610-ton Chinese vessel collided with a 6,500-ton Cambodian vessel.

In June 2007, 23 people were injured in Shanghai when a tourist boat carry 216 people collided with a small cargo ship in the Huangpu River. At least one tourist, a Japanese, received treatment at a hospital for multiple fractures.

Image Sources: 1) Columbia University; 2) BBC, Environmental News; 3, 7) University of Washington; 4, 5, 6) Nolls China website ; Julie Chao, Wiki Commons ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated July 2011

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